Institutional memory (making) and learning across project silos

Every (smart) development organisation wants to be a ‘learning organisation’. It’s perhaps a doomed enterprise, or a red herring. But there is one thing that every organisation can do to reduce its silos: to learn across its various projects and programs (let’s call them projects here).

How to ensure projects share the best lessons from one another like a champagne fountain? (Credits - KievCaira)

How to ensure projects share the best lessons from one another like a champagne fountain? (Credits – KievCaira)

Developments projects are rich learning grounds, since most development (cooperation) work follows a trial-and-error process – it’s not necessarily condemnable actually.

The basic idea is that the lessons learnt at the end of the project are carried over to subsequent projects, developing the institutional memory. Perhaps it happens, but not always. Yet it could happen throughout the lifetime of projects, not just at the end – continuous institutional memory making. Remember process documentation and related approaches?

Yet that doesn’t happen much. Everyone’s too busy. Projects take time to find their own dynamics, to create their common language, to develop trust among key parties, to get all parties involved in the transformative part where they start developing greater than the sum of the parts and start thinking outside their project box.

So let’s have a shoot at learning across project silos and explore what could be useful ways to learn and share that learning…

What could be interesting ways to learn across project silos?

Usually, projects are mostly concerned with the ‘what to do’. Few are wondering about the ‘why and how’ but this is sometimes just as important, if not even more important. The what is concerned with the activities and outputs that supposedly will bring success to the project. The why connects visions, ideals, perspectives and bonds people at a deeper level. The how is what makes or breaks a project and is the architecture that conjugates concepts and visions with actions and responsibilities. What skills, methods and processes are required to achieve the project objectives.

Why is universal and important to share in order to influence the culture (and the soul) of the organisation as a whole (across its projects), it’s what helps generate principles that guide whole groups of people and generate energy. What is usually very much focused on each project and perhaps the least share-able part of a project (because we focus so much on this partly explains why we don’t spend more time sharing across projects). How is rich in lessons, ideas, capacity development tips and tricks, tutorials and materials that guide the effective implementation of activities, and it relates to other questions such as who (a critical question), when and where etc.

So what can be learnt across projects?

Why Principles, political agendas, drives and motivations of the organization, culture, soul, mission and purpose, (implied) leadership model, assumptions about impact pathways
What Activities, outputs, assumptions about impact pathways
How Conceptual frameworks and mental models, approaches, tools and methods, guidelines and tutorials to use these, identification of capacities (knowledge and know-how) necessary to achieve objectives
Who Mapping of actors, their agendas, the nature and strength of their relationship, the density of the network, who are the connectors, who are the isolated nodes, where are opportunities to reinforce the social fabric among actors
Where Spatial scales and geographic mapping of actors and their activities
When Temporal scales and pacing of actors and their actions and of influence pathways over time

So how can we effectively learn across projects?

There are a few pre-requisites that make this learning more likely to take place:

  • A conscious approach to documenting change and willing to use what has been collected to inform activities – and a place where that documentation is easily accessible for others.
  • Realising what is good to capitalise on, in a project – the unique selling point or added value of that project;
  • A flexible monitoring and evaluation framework that embeds this learning in adaptive management;
  • Good relations among project teams and a willingness to share for a wider collective benefit – be it the organisation or anything beyond.

And there are many ways we can build that cross-pollination and learning among projects:

If we made all these aspects more explicit in each project, we could organise share fairs among projects to assess how we are looking at the rationale and ideal of the project (the why-related issues), how we are thinking of relating all activities in the project’s impact pathway (the what-related issues) and how we are thinking about capacity development and concrete approaches and methods to implement the project (the how-related issues).

Simple meetings to zoom in on one aspect of the table would also help to come up with simple and concrete guidelines that bring together the experiences and insights from various projects.

Developing fact sheets about the methods and approaches used would itself help understand the how factor better.

Planning organisational retreats to zoom in among others on the ‘why’ would also inform a collective design of projects and reinforce conditions for learning across projects.

Systematic reviews of these different aspects as part of the M&E or process documentation – undertaken or shared with other projects’ proponents – could also help cross-pollinate better.

Developing project proposals that relate to the same set of issues would also help make these projects more comparable and easy to learn from one another.

Inviting another project team in another project’s workshop is another way to share across projects.

Of course, relying on people to cross-pollinate individually (as they end up working in different projects) is another way but a slower and perhaps more hazardous one – as it also requires those people to have solid personal knowledge management and to consciously carry over lessons from the past to the present and future.

So, there really many ways to learn across these projects. Now that we are conscious of what it takes, what are we waiting for?

Related blog posts:


Musings about learning about action about change in an Exchange

Last week I was on the premises of the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) in the UK co-facilitating an interesting Knowledge Exchange about ‘Acting on what we know and how we learn for climate and development policy‘.

Together with fellow co-facilitators Pete Cranston and Carl Jackson and with the benediction of the CGIAR research program on Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS – with respect to the work we are doing together around the social learning sandbox) we embarked on a triple-loop learning journey…

Social change, mixing learning and action (credits - APC Women)

Social change, mixing learning and action (credits – APC Women)

The design of the event was ambitious in as far as we hoped to induce all participants into a triple loop social learning journey that would reveal and challenge our assumptions out in the open and map the way to action and change – in this case for climate change.

Our plan was simple: look at what we have learnt so far (single loop social learning), what we could do to change this (double loop) and how we might go beyond our current perceptions and unearth new jointly defined solutions to some of our problems (triple loop). Pete already shared his views about the event and what answers, questions and insights it brought forward. Some more posts may be coming and will be shared here. Here are mine, as they relate to the focus of this blog on learning for social change.

Of learning…

We all said it and all felt it: triple loop learning didn’t (really) happen. The kind of transformation that is alluded to in triple loop learning can only really take place with most, if not all, of these ingredients:

  • A full cycle of moving from learning to action and back to learning and back to action and… More about action below, but the point is: working together over time induces triple loop learning because it stimulates…
  • Trust, which leads to understanding each other’s perspectives and the assumptions below. We just surfaced some of these assumptions in the event but did not really went beyond. There was initial mutual exchange and interest but the deeper the trust  the more profound the learning as we can explore rougher edges and less comfortable areas.
  • Multiple and complementary – not similar – perspectives and ‘knowledges’. This was perhaps crucially missing in our event since the majority of participants were Northern academics (a really nice group at that!). All very different of course but with a broadly common socio-cultural and professional background.
  • More time for individual and collective reflection – across three stretches of 1.5 hours  of group work, we hardly had the time to elicit that collective reflection leading to the generation of properly new insights.
  • A collective agenda (not necessarily a common one but one that brings each agenda into a collage) that pushes all to stay on course and go through the ups and downs of engaging with different visions, languages, capacities…

It was only naive of us to hope to achieve any of this in a workshop, even though a good deal of single loop and double loop learning did take place and helped us understand what we have done in the past and what we could do in the near future.

Ha, the near future…

…leading to action…

Is there much purpose for learning that does not lead to action? Knowledge to do what? We did have a marketplace of actions, insights and commitments towards the end of the workshop but I have to confess I am quite skeptical about the intention and capacity (time and attention!) of participants to keep true to their words.

Dealing with elephants in the room like 'power', a prerequisite for learning to ACT! (Credits - Michelle Mockbee)

Dealing with elephants in the room like ‘power’, a prerequisite for learning to ACT! (Credits – Michelle Mockbee)

One of the groups was candid enough to mention that the ideal picture they had developed over the event was not going to happen because of the general inertia of the (policy) system to do anything about our findings. They were probably right. But frankly, shouldn’t we worry about having (great!) conversations that lead to no action? Perhaps we need to turn our reflection up side down and gear ourselves up to action from the start.

I did find a few useful elements in the Knowledge Exchange to think about the linkage between learning and action in such settings:

  • Address the elephants in the room. Power is one of them. Ignoring these big drivers is  unrealistic, yet ending our reflections with them leads to that powerless feeling that none of this matters and nothing will ever change anyway because we’re facing a big challenge. Instead, one group really addressed such issues from the start and got to a very good start in identifying smaller but useful steps to act upon our learning. 
  • Thinking again about the commitments of our participants, we seem to be onto re-evaluating what happened after the workshop in 3, 6, 12, perhaps 18 months… this would be great to help everyone realise that we have to challenge our assumptions about action also.
  • Related to that light evaluation, there is perhaps something to say about facilitating learning for change. Without a finger on the pulse, a (group of) guardian(s) of the action temple, words remain up the air and action has difficulty following learning. This is one of the lessons of that CCSL sandbox mentioned above: the active presence and intervention of knowledge gardeners increases the fertilisation of beautiful knowledge trees.
  • Action finds a fertile ground in tighter-knit groups. Where social capital has been built, the lessons unearthed in an event find a more hopeful pathway to be a seed for something else which might be…

…leading to change…?

Change, like wisdom, is not only difficult to reach – and easy to be reluctant about – but it’s also quite elusive. In a typically complex manner, it is the subtle result of many inter-connections, inter-weavings and interactions, on a long temporal scale and often a multi-layered geographic scale. Even if action happens, and even if it builds on learning, it may not be the guarantee that change itself comes about.

The Knowledge Exchange helped relate change to action and learning:

  • Don’t we just need – as individuals and collectives – to do something about change, genuinely, in a militant sort of way? That’s what I read through Dave Pollard’s writings too. In that sense, realising we may not be able to change the system is – in my humble opinion – simply not acceptable if we care about purposeful learning. 
  • Don’t we yet also need precisely a purpose – and a good timing – for learning and change? In his post, Pete relayed this impression from a participant that we may only act upon our learning and effect change within ourselves much after an event – like dormant sentinels of change ready to be activated when the occasion presents itself?
  • As civic-driven initiatives teach us and some ideas about embarking on an agile KM enterprise, we have to work with the existing ground – the ‘enabling environment’. That is where the large institutional picture comes in, and where social learning is a really promising avenue for social change. Work with what is there already, rather than with (only) an aspirational ideal that ignores the current situation.
  • Real change happens when individuals and collectives coalesce. All the work we have done in groups, as one plenary group and as individuals in this event, to challenge our assumptions and think about what we have learned and what we can do about it is a set of inputs that sooner or later may contribute to a general direction of change. We may not be able to evaluate it, to attribute it or to learn deeply enough about it, but change happens this way anyhow.

So what then?

If I consider that we had fun as facilitators, and that most participants seem to have learned something and to have enjoyed themselves, the Exchange was – despite all shortcomings – quite successful. And as facilitators we always have a slightly different take from an event.

As for triple loop social learning, well, the Knowledge Exchange was a sort of mini-lab to think about it. If anything, we’ve understood that the required scales of time, space and engagement depth are simply not going to happen in such a short setting. Yet, some seeds are planted and, who knows: if social learning is not affected by climate change too badly, we might see new knowledge gardens flourish over time, pollinated thanks to the distant breeze of a Knowledge Exchange.

Related blog posts:

All the mistakes you make, all the promises you break… in your events

Always make new mistakes (Credits - Elycefeliz)

Always make new mistakes (Credits – Elycefeliz)

Should’ve seen it coming a lot earlier… that mistake that was so familiar when it happened again. Or rather: those mistakes

I just ended a streak of five events in four weeks to facilitate in the past four weeks and when repetition happens, the danger of the auto-mode is glowing in the dark.

Auto-mode is the enemy of learning, it’s the number one factor for breaking promises to improve. I make all my mistakes with events when I end up revisiting that dreaded auto-square 1.

So, upon the excellent inspiration from Amanda Harding, a fellow facilitator who helped me out on the last event I designed and steered, I decided to jot down a list of some dreaded intellectual and practical roundabouts I wish to avoid in future events.

Pack too much

This is my one consciously blind spot. Not consciously because I want to keep it this way but somehow I always slip back into this trap and I know it: I’m putting (and letting others put) too much on the program. And everything goes (slightly) haywire: Time management becomes a nuisance, or participation becomes a burden – exactly what I want to avoid. Oh, I do save time to ensure group work and conversations, but wouldn’t it be just fine to have a lot more time for quality conversations? When you deal with a not-so-small-any-longer group (say 30+) and have to do detailed planning, you typically sever chances for (full) success in my experience.

Don’t pay attention to the list of participants…

Perhaps because event organisers themselves tend to take care of the participants, I do check the list of participants but don’t really spend quite enough time looking at who is really coming, who has a specific history with the topic at hand, who is a champion, who is busy, who may not care, who has a special agenda. Spending more careful time around who is likely to come would really help achieve a better balance in the objectives of specific sessions…

Assume everyone knows…

This flows naturally from an ill analysis of the participants’ list: assuming that everyone is familiar with the content, with the initiative behind the event, with each other etc. is really detrimental to the balance of the event and to the dynamics of the group. Especially as time is increasingly scarce for events, it is irresponsible to use time inefficiently and put everyone aside their normal working shoes if the reflection does not help them.

Focus too much on the big picture… or on devils’ details…

Because we assume people know enough, we end up focusing on petty politics, or the contrary: we think participants are coming in for a big surprise and it turns out they’re all super familiar with the topic… Well just keep in mind that it’s good to keep these big pictures and devilish details at par. Don’t focus too much on just one of these.

Don’t check what presentations people have prepared…

We give recommendations and guidelines for how to prepare presentations, how much time they should get, sometimes we even prepare a template for all to follow a consistent look and feel. But this simply doesn’t work very well most of the time. DON’T TRUST YOUR PRESENTERS (completely). They will do their best but they will probably not stick to time and might end up with awkward presentations. So give your presenters a deadline to share their presentation and give yourself enough time to review these presentations, comment them and send them back to their owners for updates.

Don’t brief group work facilitators and reporters…

Another common mistake: don’t brief your on-the-spot facilitators enough, don’t tell them to document the discussion, to let everyone speak, to report syn-the-ti-cally from their group work. Just let the chaos be and you get everyone’s ming boggling at the colourful diversity of paths that all groups are taking. This doesn’t help integrating the different streams in your event. Mind, however that a certain dose of that chaos can be really useful, but confusion should be channelled or used as part of the design rather than let totally loose throughout the event.

Who cares about creativity? Keep it bland!

In that workshop that triggered this post, I ended talking about message 1, message 2 etc. without using the title of these messages. Without using the energy of their content. What a pity! Creativity is not just concerned with grand design, it’s also about all the superfluous little details that make a grand difference. Whether you use funky props, creative labels, funny exercises, ground-breaking facilitation methods, itchy questions etc. try to bring in some creativity! I know I learned my lesson there.

Wrap it up as quickly as possible and nevermind the commitments…

Everyone is somewhat tired at the end of a good participatory workshop, energised also but certainly tired from strong engagement and racking brains for a few hours or days. It’s tantalising to finish off the workshop as soon as possible and to not spend any time on crisp action points, commitments and the rest of it… Closing the event too quickly leads to hazardous results and messy impressions. The end of an event should be about closing the space properly and paving the way for the future. This is essential to get a good event ended well! Besides, a session on personal commitments can be a great way to build a good team dynamics and to bring in some extra creativity.

Forget about after action reviews…

And this is the mother of all these lessons: If you’ve managed to follow each and everyone of these advices (sub-titles), then you might as well forget about reviewing how things went and what you learnt from it. But if you actually care about coming up with a good event, an after action review is an essential session whether you are doing group facilitation or not, to build upon the good and the bad and to not reinvent the ill 😉

Hopefully with so much good advice I will be able to come up with better events myself 😉 The only mistakes we should allow ourselves to make are new ones…

Related blog posts: